Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown
Charles Chaplin’s Los Angeles Today
In the end, everything is a gag.Charles Chaplin
Charles Spencer Chaplin, or “Charlie” for short, is one of the most influential figures from the early days of Hollywood and one of the entertainment industry’s first superstars, so he’s had a huge impact on the Los Angeles of today. Not only do his pioneering silent films endure the test of time with six of his films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, including The Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Great Dictator, Chaplin himself is almost as recognizable today as he was at the height of his fame. Even people who have never seen a Chaplin film recognize his name, his signature walk, and the look of his popular character the Little Tramp: a little fellow with a toothbrush mustache, bowler hat and cane.
EARLY LIFE IN LONDON
Chaplin was born in a working-class neighborhood of London, England, on April 16, 1889. He and his half-brother Sydney, or Syd, spent their childhoods in and out of workhouses due to the complications of mental illness suffered by their mother, a vaudeville and music hall singer. Their father, who was also a stage performer, was an infamous drunkard, abandoning them shortly after Charlie was born.
Left with no one to support him, Chaplin had to make a living and was determined to do so in show business. His first job in 1897 was with a clog dancing troupe called “Eight Lancashire Lads.” He also worked as an actor, appearing in a small, but important, role in a stage production of Sherlock Holmes, in London’s west end. He worked with a vaudeville troupe called ‘Casey’s Court Circus’ where he was discovered by Fred Karno, who would give him his first big break: playing a comic drunk in the show A Night in an English Music Hall. This act made Chaplin a star and brought him to the United States.
MOVE TO THE U.S.
While touring the comic drunk act, Chaplin came to the attention of movie producer Mack Sennett of Keystone Films. Sennett offered Chaplin a contract for the then staggering rate of $150 per week. Chaplin made about 36 films with Sennett at Keystone Studios, but what was most significant about his time there was that Chaplin decided to distinguish himself from the rest of the stable of actors by playing just one character. It was here that Chaplin created the iconic look of the Little Tramp, who would make so much movie history. The original main building of Keystone Studios, the first fully-enclosed movie studio in Hollywood, is still standing at 1712 Glendale Boulevard in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
In 1915, Chaplin was offered $1,250 a week by Essanay Studios, and his more than thirty films there made him a cultural phenomenon. Not only were the films popular, but also shops began carrying Chaplin merchandise (the first example of merchandising), songs were written about him, and he regularly appeared in cartoons and comic strips.
Chaplin then went to work for Mutual Studios, where he made some of his most famous and highly regarded short films such as One A.M., The Cure, and The Adventurer to name a few. At twenty-six years old, just three years after leaving Vaudeville, he was now internationally famous and the highest paid entertainer there had ever been.
His next contract was to create eight films for the new First National Exhibitor’s Circuit, for the sum total of a million dollars. So new, in fact, was this company that they had no filming studios, so Chaplin decided to build his own, right in the heart of Hollywood. After completing his films for First National, Chaplin joined with fellow film artists Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and D.W. Griffith to form United Artists in 1919.
Some of Chaplin’s greatest and most enduring work was created during the 20’s and 30’s, including City Lights, Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and The Great Dictator, presaging the evils of fascism and Adolf Hitler before the United States even entered World War Two. This ruffled a lot of feathers, including those of the newly installed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Between scandals concerning his love life, alleged communist ties and his rankling of the FBI, Chaplin, who had never become a U.S. citizen, was exiled from the United States while on a trip to Europe in 1952, when his re-entry permit was revoked (it later turned out that the U.S. Government acted illegally by attempting to do this).
EXILE IN EUROPE
Chaplin lived the remainder of his days in Switzerland, at the château Manoir de Ban, overlooking Lake Geneva on a fourteen hectare estate. He returned only once to the United States, in 1972, which was in order to receive an honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.” At the ceremony, Chaplin received a twelve minute standing ovation, the longest in the Academy’s history.
Charlie Chaplin died on Christmas morning, 1977, at the age of eighty-eight, leaving behind his widow Oona O’Neill, daughter of legendary American playwright Eugene O’Neill, and eleven children. Chaplin’s life and career was full of scandal and controversy, from paternity suits to political battles to his dead body being held for ransom (a story for its own article). However, his legacy is his work. As Chaplin was fond of saying, “If you want to understand me, just watch my movies”.
8 Places to Visit to See Charles Chaplin’s Los Angeles
Through the Little Tramp’s optimism, despite a world full of turmoil and chaos, Chaplin proposes that the human spirit has, and always will, endure, and today you can still see many of the places that Chaplin created, worked, and lived in during his time in Los Angeles. The following eight locations are verifiably confirmed to have an important connection to Chaplin and his life, so, why not step back into the classic silent era of Hollywood and visit them?
1. SANTA MONICA PIER
Opening in 1909 (to carry a sewage outlet), Santa Monica Pier and the surrounding beaches have long been an ocean-side getaway for Angelenos, including Chaplin. However, in addition to a sunny respite, Chaplin also used the pier as a filming location. The earliest film shot at here (even before its iconic ferris wheel opened) was Chaplin’s slapstick comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance, in 1914. Adapted from the stage play Tillie’s Nightmare and directed by Mack Sennett of Keystone, this film is a rare chance to see Chaplin NOT playing the Little Tramp.
While this film was the first to use Santa Monica Pier, it was hardly the last. Hundreds of movies have used it as a backdrop to romantic walks, thrilling chases, roller coaster scenes and more. Today, you can enjoy carnival style games, restaurants, rides and fishing there; it’s well worth checking out.
2. JIM HENSON STUDIOS
No article about Charles Chaplin’s Los Angeles would be complete without a visit to the studio that Chaplin built for himself in 1917. The studio is located just south of the southeast corner of La Brea Avenue and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Chaplin sold the studio in 1953, when it became Kling Studios and at various times was the Red Skelton Studios, the shooting location for the Adventures of Superman and Perry Mason television series, and as the headquarters for A&M Records, before becoming the home of the Jim Henson Company in February 2000. In 1969, the studio was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, said at the time, “When we heard that the Chaplin lot was for sale, we had to have it. It’s the perfect home for the Muppets and our particular brand of classy, but eccentric entertainment.” Lisa Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, said of the studio, “The buildings are a lovable hodge-podge of quirky, unusual spaces. There are unexpected elements in some of the offices like original vaults and fish tank-like bathrooms. It’s not your typical corporate space, but it’s ideal for the Muppets.” At a ceremony in June 2000, the Henson Company unveiled a 12-foot statue of Kermit the Frog, dressed as Chaplin’s Little Tramp, above the studio’s main gate.
3. CHAPLIN-KEATON-LLOYD ALLEY
Want to see not one, but THREE classic silent movie sites all in one place? Look no further than an unnamed alley which is affectionately called Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley, running just south of Hollywood Boulevard between Cahuenga Boulevard and Cosmo Street. This alley features prominently in Buster Keaton’s film Cops, Harold Lloyd’s iconic Safety Last!, and Chaplin’s heart-wrenching The Kid, each inducted into the National Film Registry as a work of cultural importance. This is a must see spot for a Chaplin or silent movie enthusiast. Check out this video for a few side-by-side comparisons of the alley from the silent movie era and today. The alley now has a plaque to commemorate the movies filmed here.
4. CHAPLIN COTTAGES, CHARLIE HOTEL AND NORMANDIE TOWERS
Charlie Chaplin had three clusters of cottages built in Hollywood throughout the 20’s and 30’s, each more adorable than the last. They’re reminiscent of quaint European villages, with crooked roofs, cobblestone walkways, shingles and stained glass. Chaplin had them built as living quarters for actors working at his studios on La Brea. They have all been purchased by private owners since then and have been refurbished into luxury hotels and living spaces.
The first is the Charlie Hotel, at 819 North Sweetzer Avenue, in West Hollywood. At over $300 a night, not every fan can lay down the cash, but if you do, you can stay in a suite called “the Charlie,” so-called because Chaplin himself lived in it for a period. You can even see two of the Little Tramp’s canes crossed above the fireplace for decor.
The next is Normandie Towers at 7219 Hampton Avenue in West Hollywood, which is another collection of cottages now owned by a private owner, but with the individual cottages available to rent from time to time.
And, finally, what are simply known as the Chaplin Cottages, at 1330 N Formosa Avenue. Once homes to the likes of Judy Garland, John Barrymore, and Valentino, these are now apartments for musicians and artists, most of whom have ghost stories they’d be happy to share with you, if you get the chance to sit down with them.
5. MUSSO AND FRANK’S GRILL
One story says that Chaplin once challenged Douglas Fairbanks to a horse-race on Hollywood Boulevard. The stakes? The loser would get the check at Musso and Frank’s. At 6667 Hollywood Boulevard, Musso & Frank’s Grill is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, opening in 1919. From the heyday of the silent era all the way up through today, celebrities have been seen frequenting this classic Los Angeles-style steakhouse.
Charlie Chaplin regularly had lunch in what is called the restaurant’s “Old Room,” which features a woodfire grill and counter bar. Chaplin’s favorite spot was in the corner table by the window. His favorite dish? As notated on the menu today, it was grilled lamb kidneys with bacon. This is a must-do lunch stop for any Chaplin enthusiast, as he spent many an afternoon there enjoying a meal and their world-famous martini, with his celebrity friends.
We sometimes stop in at Musso and Frank’s Grill on our Hollywood Speakeasy Bar tour – and have one or two of those martinis!
6. ALEXANDRIA HOTEL
The Alexandria Hotel officially opened February 10, 1906, and was named after John Alexander, who owned the plot of land on which the hotel would sit. The hotel would become legendary, attracting some of the most renowned names in politics, culture and, of course, show business. This is a prime spot in Charles Chaplin’s Los Angeles, since he spent so much time here, including living in the hotel at different times in the 1910’s and 20’s.
The restaurant at the Alexandria became the natural meeting place for the leaders of the film industry and eventually became the studio commissary for the likes of Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, William S. Hart, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who, during one of these lunches, made movie history in 1920, by announcing the official formation of their independent motion picture company: United Artists. Charlie Chaplin was later married in the Palm Court Ballroom (where he was often to be found, at the dances) and even got into a fist-fight with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, in the lobby, which allegedly ended with Mayer landing a punch so powerful that Chaplin flew into a potted plant. A perfect slapstick moment in real life.
7. UNITED ARTISTS BUILDING
Speaking of United Artists… The United Artists Building is a 13-story Spanish Gothic style construction that was completed in 1927. It was modeled after the Cathedral of Segovia by architect C. Howard Crane. The incredibly beautiful, classic style movie palace inside the building was the flagship theater for United Artists for many years. The theater seats 1,600 people, occupies three floors of the building and features murals from the early days of the film industry, as well as a ceiling dome with hundreds of crystal pendants. The building reopened as the Ace Hotel in 2015 and now has a rooftop bar and pool, with panoramic views of the city and events are often held at the theatre.
Chaplin considered City Lights his personal favorite, of all his films. It was his first film made during the sound era, and while he faced pressure to make the film with dialogue, he decided not to because he didn’t want the Little Tramp to speak. This presented challenges. He had to reshoot the scene in which the Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower girl 342 times, as he could not find a satisfactory way of showing that she thought that the mute Tramp was a wealthy man. Despite, or perhaps because of, these challenges, City Lights is widely regarded as Chaplin’s magnum opus and considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time, at #11 on AFI’s top 100.
The film premiered on January 30, 1931, at the Los Angeles Theatre, a 2,000-seat movie palace a few blocks north of the United Artists Building on Broadway. Its lavish interior is said to be designed after the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. Chaplin part-financed the theater’s construction, so that it would open in time for the premiere. Chaplin invited Albert Einstein and wife Elsa to join him, and when the house lights rose, Chaplin saw Einstein’s eyes tearing up at the final scene. Chaplin said in his autobiography that he didn’t think Einstein was so “sentimental”!
The Los Angeles Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument in 1979.
8. LE PETIT PARIS
If you’re looking for a really nice meal, you can make reservations at Le Petit Paris on Spring Street in downtown. The restaurant offers exquisite French cuisine, however, you can just have a drink at the bar and take a look at what was then the lobby of the Stowell Hotel (opened 1913). Another key location in Charles Chaplin’s Los Angeles, he lived here for six months when he first arrived, in 1914, which was the period when he became a movie star. You can’t unfortunately go up to Chaplin’s old room, but it’s a great excuse to visit this beautiful place.
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We also have articles detailing the filming locations of famous movies (including Chaplin’s), in both downtown and Hollywood. Take a look if you’re interested in learning more about where many hugely popular movies were filmed.
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– By Mike Funt (Twitter)
- Mike Funt is an internationally recognized clown performer and director and Associate Artistic Director of the Clown School. The school organizes classes, workshops and theatrical productions throughout the year, please check their website for more information. If you’re interested in seeing what Chaplin’s London looks like now, you can also join Mike on a seven day trip to London, with Adventure Clown, April 9-16 2022. It has a packaged educational program designed to explore the art of mask, puppetry, theatre, and – of course! – clowning. Each excursion is carefully curated to provide guests with a one-of-a-kind cultural experience, connecting artists and providing them with a creative experience that doesn’t just last a few days, but will resonate with them for a life-time.